Dean Street witnessed a typically full blooded encounter between title challengers Shildon and local rivals West Auckland, who also happened to start the day as league leaders.
The tie included four goals, two shared in each half, and a red card with ten minutes remaining for Shildon’s Sam Hodgson which left the Railwaymen simultaneously on the back foot and a dangerous prospect on the break as they sought to both protect the result and steal the win.
Unlike previous meetings which, although equally committed, had often descended into acrimony, the red card on this occasion was more conventional, although its recipient – backed the majority of the home support – insisted his first yellow was no such thing.
The second, a trip on Michael Tait – one of four ex-Shildon players in the West Auckland side – was inarguable and left the Railwaymen clutching on to their 2-2 draw as West’s giant centre back, Daryll Hall – another ex-Shildonian – switched to centre forward as the league leaders piled forward in their attempt to snatch maximum points.
Whether West player-manager, Stephen Skinner would have taken such a risk in other circumstances, say, against a side that were not in the title chase, is one for the theorists. The view here is perhaps not. Perhaps West Auckland understood that a draw suited their rivals more than it did them. In sending their centre back upfield, they left themselves exposed at the other end and Shildon came close to winning it with perhaps the best opportunity of the closing stages when substitute Adam Rundle found himself in open space but headed wildly high and wide.
Shildon, who had to come from behind twice in this tie, have three games in hand in the title race and remain three points behind West. Psychologically, as the race enters the final third, the gap remains manageable while a six point difference may have forced some apprehension into the minds of the chasers.
As it happens, the draw allowed Guisborough, who won narrowly at West Allotment Celtic, to leapfrog West and top the table at the close of play, a point ahead of West and four in front of Shildon, but their games too are running out faster than Shildon’s: the Railwaymen have four games in hand over the Priorymen.
That said, there are seven points between the top seven sides and little doubt that the conversation at each club will be that they have an opportunity to lift the championship trophy if they can successfully negotiate their remaining fixtures. It’s an argument that can hardly be faulted and one that adds spice to every remaining game in the competition.
To crudely paraphrase Orwell, some games are still regarded as more important than others, and this local derby between two of the favourites was one of them.
The game started explosively, ensuring all eyes would be firmly fixed to proceedings for the duration of this fast paced, end to end, match. Shildon almost took the lead in the opening minute when a Harwood pass was chested into the path of Lee Scroggins by Paul Connor. The midfielder laced the shot but Daniel Lowson was quickly off his line to block bravely.
From the rebound, West were able to clear and a long ball found Craig Ruddy – yet another ex-Shildonian, transferred to West Auckland less than four weeks ago – who ran into the box unchallenged and curled the ball past Kyle Hayes to haunt his previous club with the opening goal. Inevitable as it was, you would have been chastised for scripting it.
Scroggins’s shot apart, Shildon looked tense in the opening stages. The knowledge that West in recent years seem to hold an Indian sign over the Railwaymen, who have failed to record a win against their fierce rivals since the 2010-11 season, perhaps adding to the home side’s nervousness. West seemed well aware of their record, playing a high, pressing game in the initial period in the hope of a further breakthrough as Shildon continued to give the ball away cheaply.
It took a full fifteen minutes for the home side to find their feet and snap out of the spell cast by their visitors, after which the award of a series of corners allowed them to regain their natural composure. The contest levelled out into an even midfield battle with Shildon gradually gaining the upper hand.
Midway through the half came the equaliser. An underweighted pass by Ruddy allowed Lee Scroggins to beat Steven Richardson to the ball in the centre circle and, spotting Paul Connor’s run, he lobbed the ball in to his path. In a copy of Ruddy’s goal, the Shildon striker sidefooted past the onrushing keeper to bring the scores level.
It was Shildon’s turn to dominate without creating any real clear cut chances, the best falling again to Connor when a cross found him in the box but his header was too shallow and easily gathered.
The best chance in the remaining time before the break fell to West Auckland, but they were twice denied by a sensational double save by Kyle Hayes, first blocking an Alex Francis shot before somehow getting back to his feet and scrambling across to deny Matty Moffat, the ball eventually being cleared off the line with West appealing it had crossed.
The game was played at a frenetic, full blooded pace which showed no sign of abating in the second period. On the drive home, Stan Collymore could be heard on the radio advocating that Premier League players earning a large fortune on a weekly basis should be allowed personal mid season breaks on sunny paradise islands when the stresses and strains of professional football overcome them.
What must non-league players think when they hear such tosh? Guys who work a lifetime in a full-time job to earn as much as di Maria does in a week, yet who display an exemplary commitment when they stride up and down that pitch on a Saturday afternoon or Wednesday evening. If you didn’t laugh you could only cry at how ludicrously pampered the highest echelons of the game have become.
None of that nonsense at Dean Street, just twenty-two passionate players straining every sinew to win a game of football for all the right reasons.
Shildon took the opening stages of the second half to their visitors with Mark Doninger having the best of the early opportunities when Paul Connor set him free inside the left of the penalty box. But the midfielder wanted the ball on his right foot and by the time he cut inside, bodies were in the way of the shot.
A poorly judged yellow card for Sam Hodgson would play an important part in the dying moments of the game after the referee deemed it necessary to show the card when a West player, in the process of clearing, kicked the bottom of Hodgson’s boot with his follow through.
From the resulting free kick, West’s Daryll Hall was fortunate not to see red when, rising to head the ball, he caught a Shildon defender with his elbow. In the process of defending himself to the referee he seemed only to implicate himself further, claiming he had been looking at the ball while failing to deny he had caught the player. Another yellow was the referee’s decision.
With 20 minutes remaining, it was West who regained the lead against the run of play. A throw on the right found Steven Richardson whose cross was only half cleared by Moore. Tait returned the ball into the box where Moffat was quickest to react, controlling the ball before poking past the helpless Hayes.
In another age, Shildon’s heads may have hit their chests after such a blow, but no longer. This is a side that refuses to throw in the towel and within six minutes they were back on level terms.
A ball by Hodgson into the channel again released Connor who this time made for the byline before rolling the ball to the near post where Doninger won the race, cutting in front of Hall to lash an unstoppable shot high into the roof of the net from six yards.
Moments later, the significance of the referee’s rash first yellow card for Hodgson would change the nature of the game when a second, more obviously bookable offence saw the midfielder see red.
Hodgson has been a revelation this season; a composed, quietly effective midfielder, his control and distribution of the ball in the centre has become pivotal to Shildon’s success. When Hodgson plays, the entire team has the timing of a Swiss watch; when he is below par, which is a very rare occurrence these days, there is more of a Timex feel to the side – working, but not quite matching the precision of the more expensive brand. He remains my player of the season to date.
Yet it was the ten men who created the best opportunity in the remaining moments when Doninger found Rundle, but the header in open space was never under control.
The destiny of the title remains anyone’s guess, but it is also a destiny that Shildon, should they take the responsibility upon themselves, have somewhat under their control. It’s the old adage, already oft repeated in these reports, of games in hand versus points on the board. The control lies with Shildon if the games in hand translate to maximum points on the board.
There may be a third of the season to go, but there’s not that much longer to wait to find out.
SHILDON: Hayes, Harwood, Chapman (Richardson 46), Scroggins, Craddock, Moore, Doninger, Hodgson, Connor, Wood (Ellison, 81), Emms (Rundle 77). Subs not used: Jones, Graham.
Goals: Connor (25), Doninger (77).
Yellow cards: Hodgson (x2), Emms; Red cards: Hodgson (second yellow).
WEST AUCKLAND: Lowson, Pattinson (Gibson 46), Gordon, Hall, Galpin, Close, Francis, Tait, Moffat, Richardson, Ruddy. Subs not used: Fowler, Lowes, Preston, Skinner.
Goals: Ruddy (2), Moffat (71).
Yellow cards: Hall.